LOS ANGELES — This month, Hollywood celebrates the 100th birthday of producer and director Stanley Kramer - who made controversial films and explored the unpopular topics of his time. Kramer not only challenged American society, he challenged powerful movie studios of the day by becoming an independent filmmaker. Kramer died more than 10 years ago, but his legacy and his films live on.
Stanley Kramer made movies that got people’s attention and, at times, made them angry. His wife, Karen Sharpe Kramer, remembers the opening night of the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
“There were lines around the block, 15 blocks long," said his wife Karen Sharpe Kramer.
The film explores the issue of interracial marriage, a risky subject in the 1960s.
“Stanley and I both had a lot of hate mail, we were threatened in restaurants," she said. "We’d go to dinner and somebody would come to the table and say, "You’re that Mr. Kramer that made that film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Well you better watch your back Kramer, we don’t like it.'"
Jan-Christopher Horak directs UCLA's Film and Television Archive.
“The time that film was made, in 60 to 80 percent of the states in this country there were still laws on the books - it made you a criminal if you married interracially," said Horak.
Black actor Sidney Poitier starred in that film.
“He was a remarkable person and he was probably one of the most amazing filmmakers in America and we never had moments for anything but teaching each other. We learned from him occasionally, once in awhile he learned from us," said Poitier.
Kramer explored race relations even before Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, often in secret says Karen Sharpe Kramer, recalling how the film Home of the Brave was made.
“And he hid this wonderful African American actor James Edwards on the floorboard of his car going to and from work everyday," said Karen Sharpe Kramer.
Kramer addressed other controversial issues, for example the Holocaust in the movie Judgment At Nuremberg, a fictionalized account of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal that prosecuted top Nazi leaders for genocide against Europe's Jews in World War II. At a time when the country was not discussing the Holocaust, this film shocked audiences.
Kramer also directed Inherit the Wind, taking on another controversy, the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The movie was based on the famous Scopes Monkey trial in which a school teacher in Kentucky was tried for teaching evolution and found guilty.
It was nominated for four Academy Awards but, UCLA's Horak says:
“He was criticized for focusing too much on messages you know, that his messages were a little too obvious that he was making films for the message instead of making a great film and have the message somehow kind of slip in along the side," he said.
Stanley Kramer retired in his 60s, but his films won 16 Oscars and their subject matter had an impact on how Americans think and act on issues still relevant today.